Back in April, the New York Times published a piece questioning the link between obesity and healthy food access. The main thrust of the article was to debunk the notion that there are neighborhoods in the United States that have little access to healthy food–and that limited access to healthy food negatively impacts community health. These areas are commonly referred to as food deserts.
The Times article flies in the face of what food experts and community leaders are seeing at the ground level. Since I’ve been covering the food distribution software and industry trends at Software Advice for a while, I decided to catch up with a couple of industry experts, Frank Dell and Dan Carmody, to talk about whether the problem of food deserts persists.
The answer was an unequivocal yes. And they think that something should be done about it. This is what they had to say.
Local food systems help alleviate the problem
Dan Carmody lives in Detroit – a part of the country that has several regions that he would classify as food deserts. While the city has many small neighborhood stores, finding affordable, healthy food can be difficult. The problem, as Carmody sees it, is basically one of an inadequate food distribution system. He believes that local food can help fill these gaps.
There are essentially three alternative food distribution models that are popping up to serve these communities in Detroit and other Food Desert Distribution parts of the country that have limited access to healthy food. These models are:
- Public market distribution – These marketplaces are either temporary farmer’s markets or more permanent structures that serve a neighborhood for a few days a week. Carmody and other neighborhood leaders are working to coordinate in neighborhoods with little grocery store access to this kind of food.
- Regional food hubs – Regional food hubs are the next step up from a farmer’s market. They act as a market and distribution hub for multiple small, regionally located farms. They help these farms achieve scale and access wholesale and retail markets to reach a broader market place. Carmody operates Detroit’s biggest public market known as Detroit’s Eastern Market.
- Community supported agriculture (CSA) – One of the most impressive aspects of what Detroit is doing to replace the food distribution gap is community gardening. The city is home to more than 1,600 community gardens and is one of the biggest examples of urban gardening in the United States.
These distribution models aren’t unique to Detroit. They’re happening all over the place to help bring healthy food at an affordable price to community that have typically gone without this kind of access. If, as the New York Times asserts, there is no such things as food deserts then why are these communities working so hard to replace mainstream distribution networks? Clearly there is a need.
Healthy food access needs to be coupled with buyer changes
While all the efforts to improve healthy food access are important and encouraging, Frank Dell notes that it’s only part of the solution. According to Dell, any improvement in healthy food access has to be coupled with an approach that increases demand. This is one area that the Times article gets right: healthy food access does not change.
Dell says, “People need to be taught about the healthy food options that are out there and learn how to prepare things like fresh vegetables.” Once you’ve gone through a generation of shopping at convenience stores and eating hamburgers and fries, it’s tough to get people to change. However, it’s possible and it’s something we should work toward.
Anyone that thinks access to healthy food isn’t a problem in the United States hasn’t been to the neighborhoods where it’s a daily reality. In my opinion, denying the problem leads us away from the solutions out there today that can help alleviate it.
But those are just my thoughts. What’s your experience? Are food deserts a problem? If so, how can we fix them?